The unfolding destruction of Timbuktu

Timbuktu's cultural heritage is at risk of being lost forever at the hands of Islamist fighters

Timbuktu's cultural heritage has almost mythical status
Ghaffar Hussain
On 2 July 2012 12:04

When Bedouin forces from the eastern Arabian province of Najd, led by the ancestors of the present day ruling family of Saudi Arabia, first captured the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, they immediately began destroying historical mosques, mausoleums and other sites of historical and religious significance.

Similarly, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they demolished two huge Buddha statues in Bamiyan province. These statues had been carved into a mountain side during the 6th century and up until their destruction in 2001, were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that fighters belonging to Ansar Dine, an Islamist group in Mali with links to al-Qaeda, are currently rampaging through the ancient city of Timbuktu, armed with Kalashnikovs and pick axes, destroying all culturally significant historical sites they can get their ugly hands on.

It seems whenever religious zealots gain sufficient power and influence they turn their wrath to their two primary obsessions: women’s bodies and sites of historical and cultural significance.

History, culture and heritage is not only worthless in the eyes of Wahabist inspired armed zealots, but seen as something to be eradicated in the quest to create a bland and lifeless monoculture in which all artistic expression and hints of pluralism are ruthlessly crushed.

Timbuktu is a one thousand year old city that has gained an almost mythical status around the world for its famed historical wealth and unique mud-based architecture. The very word ‘Timbuktu’ is often used in western culture as a by-word for the outlandish and distant. During its golden age in the 12th century, it was a centre of knowledge, learning and trade, attracting people from as far away as Europe and the Middle East.

Today it is a small impoverished town that is heavily dependent on tourism since it still has many sites of religious and historic importance. Despite its relative small size the town contains around 60 libraries that collectively house 700,000 ancient manuscripts and numerous mausoleums of Sufi saints.

Up until quite recently, Mali was known for being one of the more politically and socially stable of the African countries. There was always a Tuareg-led independence movement that sought autonomy for the northern Azawad region, but that had not flared up since the 1995 peace accords.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) was also known to be operating in the region but, despite the occasional kidnappings of westerners for ransoms, its influence was minor.

However, the unrest in Libya had a profound effect on the situation in Mali. Ghaddafi was rumoured to have backed Tuareg rebellions in the past and when the war to overthrow Ghaddafi erupted, many Taureg rebels, some of whom fought to defend the Ghaddafi regime, got their hands on his extensive weapons arsenal.

In October 2011, the Tuareg rebels, operating as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) formed an alliance with local Jihadist group Ansar Dine. Together they fought government troops in the Azawad region of Mali and managed to take control of the region, declaring independence from Mali in April 2012.

Since then, the secular leaning MNLA and Ansar Dine have had their disagreements, with the former wanting to distance itself from the latter in the eyes of the international community. Whatever the nature of their current relationship, the fact remains that Ansar Dine are now beginning to control areas of Mali and are determined to introduce their Taliban style rule.  

They assumed full control of Timbuktu last Thursday, after ousting Tuareg rebels from the area, and immediately began destroying one of the most prominent mausoleums in the city – which belonged to a Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a revered 15th century Muslim scholar – as locals looked on in horror and disbelief. 

After pressure from the Malian government, UNESCO’s world heritage committee has placed Timbuktu on its list of endangered heritage sites. Mali’s neighbours are also seeking UN backing for military intervention to stabilise the country but, as ever with the UN, Security Council members are still dithering.

The saddest part about the destruction of Timbuktu is the fact that no-one can do anything about it. By the time Ansar Dine has been flushed out by either central government troops or local militias, Timbuktu’s cultural heritage could be lost forever. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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